CHARLESTON — With just under six months until the May primary election, the State Election Commission approved a software update to move nonpartisan judicial races from the bottom of the ballot.

The commission and staff of the Elections Division of the West Virginia Secretary of State met by conference call Tuesday morning.

The software update for counties using the ExpressVote electronic voting system will allow nonpartisan elections of judges and Supreme Court justices to be moved from the bottom of the ballot to the middle above county races. The previous firmware kept nonpartisan races separated from partisan races at the bottom of the ballot.

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“The statutory change in 2019 requires counties to program the ballot where the judicial races come above the county races,” said Donald “Deak” Kersey, legal counsel for the Secretary of State.

“The recent update to the firmware, in addition to security updates, includes the ability to customize the ballot. So you can have a nonpartisan race come between two different partisan races. That’s a necessity for the counties that have ExpressVote machines.”

According to the office, 32 counties now use ExpressVote by Elections Systems and Software, the state’s only voting machine vendor.

ExpressVote allows voters to insert a blank ballot into the touchscreen machine, make their selections and have their votes electronically counted and have a printed ballot to put into a ballot box. Kersey said approving the firmware now will give counties plenty of time to reprogram their ExpressVote machines in time for the May 12 election.

“That was the impetus for getting it through right now, as soon as the SEC certified it, just to make sure that the counties had enough time to program it, test it, and then implement it by early voting,” Kersey said. “(ES&S) are going to have to go around and do a lot of manual upgrades – the firmware and the election night tabulation computers that are separated from the internet.

“It’s going to be a couple of months-worth of going around the state.”

The goal is to make judicial elections more visible for voters who might be otherwise inclined to skip voting on these races.

According to election results from the 2018 general election, 586,034 people cast votes in the U.S. Senate race between Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va, and Republican Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. Only 503,940 people cast votes in the special election for Division 1 state Supreme Court – a 14 percent drop. The results were similar for the Division 2 Supreme Court race, with 505,716 votes cast – also a 14 percent decrease from the Senate race.

Counties still using the iVotronic touchscreen machines, which also produce a paper trail, can already move nonpartisan judicial races further up on the ballot.

By code, the election commission approves all voting machines and election devices, including software changes.

The commission requires two computer experts from each party to evaluate news machines, equipment, and software. While Secretary of State Mac Warner is an ex officio member, the commission is independent of the office of the Secretary of State, with members appointed by the governor.

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